“I wanted to go where I would be unique and be a pioneer, so I went into manufacturing,” Ilene Gordon ’75, SM ’76 reflects on her career path. “It wasn’t easy, but I had a strong personality. Sometimes people tried to say, ‘No no no, you can’t go in there. There’s no women allowed in there.’ I’d say, ‘What?’”
In the 1970s, Gordon came to MIT to study math as an undergraduate, then management as a grad student. She left the Institute not only with a solid foundation in analytics, but with the confidence that came from being surrounded by talented, ambitious young women like herself. “I lived in an all-female dorm, in McCormick Hall,” she recalls in this episode of the Slice of MIT podcast. “And I met all these wonderful women who wanted to be PhDs, and doctors, and lawyers, and I realized I could be anything I wanted to be.”
What Ilene Gordon wanted to be was the head of a Fortune 500 company—and she got there. As the recently retired CEO of Ingredion (formerly Corn Products International), she is one of a small cohort of women ever to have led a company on that top-revenue roster. Under her leadership, the century-old, Illinois-based ingredient provider saw enormous growth by expanding its strategy and transforming its culture.
In April 2019, Gordon visited MIT Sloan as part of a “Leaning in Together” speaking tour with her husband, Bram Bluestein, about keys to success for dual-career couples. While in Cambridge, she sat down with Slice of MIT to discuss the importance of having a plan B (and C), how doing laundry in London helped her career, what she wishes more mentees would ask her, and why she now views herself as “rewired” rather than “retired.”
You’re listening to the Slice of MIT podcast, a production of the MIT Alumni Association.
Nicole Estvanik Taylor: When Ilene Gordon started college at MIT in the 1970s, if you’d asked her what career she might pursue, “high school math teacher” is probably the answer she would have given. Four decades later, Ilene is the recently retired CEO of Ingredion, a Fortune 500 company. Now, keep in mind that as of the 2019 Fortune 500 listing, only 6.6% of those top-revenue companies have a female CEO—and that’s an all-time high. In other words, Ilene Gordon found exceptional success on a path that had far fewer female role models than the future she originally pictured for herself.
To hear her tell it, that shift in horizon all started while she was at MIT.
Ilene Gordon: In the ‘70s or ‘60s, women didn’t do math. But at MIT, it was actually cool. When I came to MIT, I lived in an all-female dorm, in McCormick Hall. I met all these wonderful women who wanted to be PhDs, and doctors, and lawyers, and I realized I could be anything I wanted to be.
Taylor: After graduating, Ilene got her master’s degree in management from MIT Sloan—where she was just one of 20 women in the 1976 class—spent a few years in consulting, and then began working her way up in the manufacturing and packaging industries. In 2009 she was hired as CEO of what was then called Corn Products International, now Ingredion. Under her leadership, the century-old, Illinois-based ingredient company saw enormous growth by expanding its strategy and transforming its culture.
In spring 2019, less than a year after her retirement from Ingredion, Ilene spoke with Slice of MIT during a visit to MIT Sloan. In this interview, we talk about how she distinguished herself as a business leader, what she looks for in the younger professionals she now mentors, and what exactly this post-CEO chapter in her life will be like—given that, as she points out, retirement doesn’t necessarily mean your personality changes. After you hear her talk about her career, you won’t be surprised to know her plate is still very full.
Taylor: I thought maybe we could start by talking about your definition of successful leadership, but not just how you think about it now, how you’ve thought about it at different stages in your life, going all the way back to MIT and then throughout your career.
Gordon: I started my career as a consultant. When you’re a consultant, leadership is all about your analysis and the recommendations you’re making to the client. So really, what you want to be is part of a team. You want to be presenting your analysis. You want to convince the client to follow recommendations. That’s how you measure your impact, and a leader will be able to have impact.
That theme really follows itself when you go to the corporate world. I had a long career in the corporate world. There, leadership is really about leading an organization, and how you measure your impact is based on the size and the scope of the organization. People will say, “Well, I was leading a two-billion-dollar company in revenues,” or they might say, “My market cap is six billion dollars.” I was leading Corn Products, which became Ingredion. When I started, it was four billion dollars in revenues. We did a big acquisition, we became a six-billion-dollar company. Then we became part of the Fortune 500. To be in the Fortune 500, you have to be at about the five- or six-billion-dollar mark. That was really a true measure of globalness and important impact.
I used to say, “I want to lead an organization that’s a Fortune 500 company,” and I got there—not exactly the route I thought I would get there, but it was all about leading people, being enthusiastic, having measurements, and really defining it by the scope. And people define it very differently, but being a leader, it’s all about having impact.
Today, I sit on several boards, and how you measure leadership on a board is really creating value for your shareholders, because you as a board member are representing the independent shareholders. Your job is to create value for the company. Leadership really changes depending on how you’re measured, but it is all about, in the end, creating value for whatever you’re focusing on.
Taylor: It sounds like it changed a lot because of your role in the sphere in which you were moving. Were there other factors that shaped how you thought about leadership—either ideas or people you were exposed to at MIT or during your career?
Gordon: One thing I was known for, and it was very important to me at MIT especially, was analytics. I was a young woman in the ‘70s, and a math major, and very analytical. I was very determined to be the best that I could be, and I wanted to excel in that area, so I evolved into being a leader with an analytical focus. I actually think that that’s a key to success, especially for women, having the analytics, because, in the ‘70s or ‘60s, women didn’t do math. But at MIT, it was actually cool. In fact, I tell a lot of people that when I went to school in the ‘70s and I came to MIT, I thought I would be a high school math teacher. Because that was the role model, that’s all we knew about.
When I came to MIT, I lived in an all-female dorm, in McCormick Hall. I met all these wonderful women who wanted to be PhDs, and doctors, and lawyers, and I realized I could be anything I wanted to be, so that was the role model. I said, “I can use my analytics,” and I loved problem solving, so that led me to business. Throughout my business career, I could be the best analyst, I could lead other people and make an impact by using my analytical ability.
Taylor: Do you think that the imbalance that I’m assuming you often encountered in the classroom, and then in boardrooms throughout your career, between the number of men and women who were around the table, do you think that changed the choices you made or the choices that were available to you?
Gordon: Well, early on, it seemed to limit my choices, but when I realized, being an MIT student, that there were no limits, it actually propelled me to be even better. The imbalance, when I was an undergrad at MIT in the ‘70s, graduate and undergraduate, the ratio was 18 to 1. My class of undergrads, it was 10 to 1. But it propelled me to want to be the best, to be equal footing with the boys, and so it really opened up my choices, by being at MIT, knowing that I could be in business, I could be in problem solving, I could be the best that I could be, and there were no limitations, and it was a matter of having high goals. During my career, I met people who mentored me, who actually encouraged those goals. And to me, that made all the difference in the world.
Taylor: So do you think that being a female leader, in a field that didn’t have a lot of female leaders, actually made you stand out or distinguish you in some way?
Gordon: Absolutely. Now, it’s interesting, because I went into the manufacturing field, and I would call myself a pioneer. I was a pioneer in the manufacturing industry. There were plenty of women in banking. There were women in the food industry, in brand management, more traditional. But I wanted to go where I would be unique and be a pioneer, so I went into manufacturing, where there were no women, in the paper industry. And I would visit facilities. I’d visit factories in my safety shoes. I was trying to learn; I’m a very inquisitive person. I would go meet people, and I would want to be personable and ask them about what they were doing and how they were making a difference. Then I would synthesize all that learning, and then I would take that back to my team, and talk about what I learned, doing that.
So I would say, my gender, I used it to my advantage, all those years, and it wasn’t easy, but I had a strong personality. Sometimes people tried to say, “No no no, you can’t go in there. There’s no women allowed in there.” I’d say, “What?” When I went to MIT, there were no women’s rooms on the first floor. We said, “No, we’ve got to change that.” People said, “Fine.” You just needed somebody to say that. It wasn’t about having a battle or embarrassing anybody. It was about making change for positive, for everybody, and so we had the energy to push ahead and say, “We’re going to make that change.”
Taylor: You clearly have a lot of expertise in thinking about, on the corporate level, a company’s identity, how you brand it, how you repositioned Ingredion in a major way. I’m curious if some of the concepts that apply to that also apply to the way you’ve thought about branding or presenting yourself as a leader.
Gordon: Well, absolutely. As I said, I’ve always stood for somebody who’s very analytical. The first thing, every job I walk into, I would say, “Look, we’re going to make decisions based on facts, facts mean you need to do analysis.” If somebody came in and said, “Well, I feel we should do this,” I’d say, “Well, what is that based on? What’s the size of the market? What’s our competitive position? How are we going to grow it? What’s our investment plan? If you don’t have your homework done, leave, and come back when it’s done.” I would say that my brand was always known to be fact-based, which means that you’re not emotional and you’re very fair. It’s all about meritocracy. It’s about smart people doing their work.
Two, I developed an affinity for safety. It’s all about setting the culture, from the top, and saying, “Safety’s very important. We want people to go home the way they came.”
And the third part of my brand was I was very big on what I call plan A and B. My whole life, to run my business, and I had a family along the way, a great spouse, was always: You have a plan that you want to embark on, that’s great, but you know what, things happen. So I became known for always having a backup plan, plan B or Plan C. Somebody would say, “Our plan is we’re going to invest in this facility.” I’d say, “That’s great, but what happens if there’s something wrong with the soil?”
I’ll give you an example. We were building a facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and we announced building the facility in an industrial park. I went to go down and meet the people who were running the industrial park, and they said, “Oh, by the way, the facility across the street is going to be making a poisonous gas. Now, the wind is always blowing the other way, so don’t worry about it. It’s going to be fine.” Right away, I did not want to read about people getting hurt in 20 years, even though I knew I wouldn’t be leading the facility. So I said, “We are going to move to a different facility, to a different street. I want to know what’s open.” That was my plan B, which was, “Okay, stuff happens. All right, it wasn’t a great decision. It’s not too late. We haven’t broken ground.”
Taylor: You’re not going to trust the wind.
Gordon: Right, exactly, because stuff happens. We moved several blocks away, and the facility’s still there today, and I don’t lose any sleep about sulfuric acid blowing the other way.
Taylor: I’m curious to know what your experience has been as a mentor and a role model, as you’ve gotten to that point where, now, people are coming to you, asking you for advice. What questions you get the most from young professionals, young women entering business—and also what questions you wish they would ask more, or you think people in that position should be asking.
Gordon: My first advice to people is, if somebody’s going to mentor you, it should be somebody who knows you, who knows your strength and weaknesses, who will tell you the truth.
A lot of the people that I’m mentoring now, I knew in business, and many women who are trying to figure out how to have their career and have kids. As an example, there was a woman at Ingredion who wrote me a note, recently, and said she’s been offered a career opportunity in another country. What did I think of it? I thought about it, and I said, “You know what, I think it’s a great opportunity.” Now, it means that she and her spouse will have to move, and her spouse is a professor. And it’s a big decision, and probably, she’s getting a lot of pressure from her family to just go with the current. But I said, “If you want to get ahead, this would be great for you. It’ll give you international experience.”
When people ask me about being mentored, many of them ask me about career moves, and how to make it happen. What I do is I try to give advice to people, but I need them to be open-minded. If somebody says, “Well, should I take this job? I’m going to move three offices down,” I push them to be more bold, because people did that to me. It’s very easy to go with the status quo and to make other people happy around you, but I say, “You really have to stretch and get out of your comfort zone.”
I like to mentor people that are high energy, I say ambitious, that are willing to figure it out, that aren’t looking for perfect lives. Nobody’s life is perfect. Bad stuff happens to good people all the time. In fact, when I hired people, I would ask them, “Tell me the worst thing that ever happened to you, and how did you snap back from it.” Because I love to hear about how people are resilient and would take on that challenge, because it makes them tougher, because life is tough. So I want to mentor people that are looking for challenges and opportunity, have resiliency. And they’re not looking for the traditional path. I tell people one of the things I gave up is, I don’t know if I’ve ever had a dinner party. Who has time? You have your career. You have your kids. You have your travel. You have your family. I never had a huge social life. I mean, today, my best friend is my sister. I have a college roommate I’m still friendly with, but friends, to me, are people, if I don’t call them for six months, they’re still my friend.
The mentee has to be the proactive one. “Can we have lunch next week? Here’s my list of questions.” I used to call people that I mentored, and I’d say, “Oh, gee, it’s once a quarter. It’s our time,” and they’d say, “Oh, of course.” I really wanted them to come back and say, “No, I need more of your time, and this is my agenda. I know you’re busy, but could you make time for me?” That’s what I want. I want people to chase after me.
Taylor: Can you think of a time when a mentor pushed you in a way that felt maybe uncomfortable, or told you, “No, you’re not reaching high enough,” or, “You’re playing it too safe”?
Gordon: I once had a mentor in consulting, I had done a client presentation. I said, “How did I do?” She said, “Not so well. Let me tell you how you can do better.” She said, “Tell a story. Have presence up there. Think about your transitions.” Think about this: 40 years later, I still remember this. She did me a huge favor. She mentored me by not saying, “You did a great job,” or, “It was fine.” She could’ve easily said it was fine and moved on, but instead she said, “You can do these three things better,” and I then went off and thought about what she’d said. I felt badly for about five minutes, but then I realized, “This is really going to help me. I’m 24 years old. This is going to help me for the next 30, 40 years.”
Taylor: I have to ask you about the international experience that you mentioned, that that’s a piece of advice you often give. So I’d love to know a little about your own international experience.
Gordon: It’s very important to experience other cultures. Now, I’ll give you the practical example, and then I’ll talk about business. So when people say, “I can’t move, but I’ll be on an airplane every week, if you want me to,” I say, “You know what, that’s not enough. You need to move there, and do your laundry in a foreign country. Because you need to speak to people, maybe it’s English in London, maybe it’s French in France, but you need to put money in and learn how to do your laundry not in your house, because it takes you out of your comfort zone.” I lived in London, in the ’70s, with the Boston Consulting Group, and I had to do my laundry down the street. It grew me a lot, because I had to communicate with people and figure it out. That’s why I say to people, “You have to live internationally. Unless you know the process, and the culture, and the norms, you’re never going to be successful here.”
Later on, after living in London and being in the packaging industry, I was actually based in France with a French company. I was running the French packaging company, globally, from Paris, and they had promised the French government that their leader would live in France. My family was back in Chicago, but I had an apartment in France. I was spending a week a month there, and then another week a month, I was, let’s say, in Asia, and then maybe I was in Chicago for a week, and then I was somewhere else, but running a global packaging company. I actually went to Paris every month for 10 years. But I was based in France my last three years as head of the French company. We were making packaging out of plastic film. What I learned was that every culture had their own norms, and how they wanted their food to taste, and how their packaging would help the food perform better. You had to figure out how to put the package together (in its opening and its closing) for the consumer, and how that consumer was going to use it. It sounds like the same package might work in a lot of different places, but the reality was it wouldn’t, and if you went into that attitude, you would not be successful. In France, you might have a pull tab, and be able to throw away the pull tab, but in Japan, they would be very upset about that, so you needed a package that would open, could be used, and re-closed.
I would say that having that type of global experience was very important to me, because it helped make me a better leader in one region versus another region, by being exposed, and my final job, when I was a public company CEO of Corn Products, which became Ingredion, we actually did business in 40 countries, and all very different. And I would learn about food ingredients. Food actually tastes different in every country, because the water tastes different, and how the crops are washed can affect the taste of the ingredients. It was very important to have clean water, the appropriate ingredients. Some countries wanted non-genetically modified, they thought it was healthier. Others would say GMO was fine, genetically modified. It was very different. I would say that packaging experience was very helpful for me to understand different cultures, so that, today, I can meet somebody from any country, and I can have a conversation about their country, their culture, their challenges.
Taylor: How many of those 40 countries did you visit? I should ask, how many did you do laundry in? [Laughter.]
Gordon: Well, I lived only in a few of them, but I probably visited half of them. There were many smaller countries that I never got to, I would’ve liked to have. But I made a different set of visits. As an example, I would go to China, and instead of meeting with the management team, I would ask to meet with everybody who joined the company within two years. The reason was that, in China, people would change jobs for a five-percent increase in salary, so we were losing people all the time. I said, “Well, why don’t I meet with them and find out what are their goals?” Their goal was to develop their career. That became more important than the five percent more in salary, but if they felt you weren’t investing in them, they would leave for more money. You learned that in your travel, but you can only do that if you get out of your comfort zone and meet with different sets of people.
Everybody thinks that you’re going to walk into a facility and meet with the senior people. My goal was, actually—I would visit facilities, I remember visiting one in Mexico, and I said, “I am going to shake hands with everybody at work today.” I know people went home that night, and they said, “I met the boss. I shook her hand. She asked me about what I was doing to add value to the company.” I made all my visits to be very meaningful. I actually knew that, because my mother worked in retail. She actually worked in Boston, at Filene’s. And she used to say to me, when the boss came, he would see she had a diamond on that day, which meant that she was a top salesperson, and he would shake hands with her. She told me about it. So to me, it’s all about when you visit a facility, it’s how do you interact with the people, not just with the boss but the people who make it happen. Which means that you have to smile at the fork-lift driver, the person who signs you in, the guard at the booth. They’re the ones who are really running the business.
Taylor: Before we wrap up, I’d love to ask you about the idea of retirement. I know that you recently retired from Ingredion. You still appear to be very busy, so I’m wondering what retirement means to you and if there are goals and things you’d like to do now that you couldn’t do while you were working as CEO of a Fortune 500 company, that now you can pursue.
Gordon: Sure, it’s a good question. My husband came up with the word “rewired,” because retire sounds like you go off and you go play golf. And I’ve not—I think I’ve played golf once.
Taylor: Any dinner parties?
Ilene Gordon: No. It’s interesting; your personality doesn’t change. So I think it’s very important to have new chapters in your life. For me, I now have the opportunity to sit on boards of directors. I was sitting on boards before, but now I have even more time. Newly retired CEOs are the best board members, because we were just a CEO two years ago, we have a lot of advice. Advice I love to give to CEOs is I say, “Don’t gloat over a great quarter, because it’s not a quarterly business, and don’t apologize for a bad quarter.”
I’m doing some work in the nonprofits, where I’m helping organizations be all that they can be, to add value to whatever their mission might be. As an example, there’s an organization in Chicago that is all about helping financially challenged children get ready for school. How do you achieve that mission? I help an organization in New York that is all about an opinion poll, that’s a nonprofit. I’m giving speeches with my husband on success for dual-career couples. I think it’s an un-discussed topic. People talk about women leaning in and companies doing what they should do. I think all of that’s happening, but I don’t think couples are leaning in enough, together.
I’m also trying to spend time with my children, to make them successful. My son has an early-stage investment company with my husband. My daughter has a real estate firm. And my son has two children, so I have two grandchildren. I’m watching them, and trying to give advice, and spend time with them, and then have a little bit of time for travels.
It’s hard to sit still when you’ve been running for 40 years. I still keep my suitcase half-packed, as I did as a professional, because I never know where I’m going to go. I woke up this morning in Fort Lauderdale, and here I’m in Boston. Tomorrow, I’ll be in Bethesda. I’ll be in Chicago on Thursday night. That’s just the norm. It’s how you operate. I’m a high energy person, and I’m doing this right now, and you never know when it’s going to change.
Thanks to Ilene Gordon for sharing her story with us, and to you for listening to the Slice of MIT podcast. Tweet us your thoughts on this episode to @mit_alumni. If you’d like to hear more stories from the MIT community, subscribe to the Slice of MIT podcast on iTunes and let us know what you think. Please rate the podcast and leave us a review. Also check out our website at slice.mit.edu.